There’s this game Lexie and I used to play where we were scientists from a more highly evolved species, sent to observe these strange human creatures and try to make sense of them. We lay on a blanket on the roof at night with binoculars to spy on the people in our neighborhood: Mrs. Cray, who trailed after her schnauzer snatching up his droppings with a Kleenex to deposit them in a paper lunch sack, was gathering ingredients for her black magic; Mr. Philips, who always flicked a lit cigarette in the alley when he was taking out the trash, was marking his territory to warn others to stay away from Mrs. Philips (visible through their kitchen window most evenings, clad in a flamingo patterned robe with her hair in giant rollers, mixing a large pitcher of martinis); Ryan Ford, who spent many evenings hunched over his Playstation, picked his nose so much we were sure he was searching for traces of a brain in his skull cavity.
Mom never asked what we were doing on the roof all the time. She was just glad to have us out from underfoot, but still where she knew where we were. Since Dad ran off with some divorcee he met at a conference for English teachers when I was seven, she has worked herself to the bone trying to support us, and even now she usually spends her evenings lying in her room listening to sad music and crying over him. She believes you only get one shot at true love in your life, and when it betrays you that deeply and casually there is no recovering. She still keeps pictures of him sitting out, like she is in mourning. I try not to look at them because I know they are lies. If he was really as happy as those dimpled smiles and sparkling blue eyes suggest, he wouldn’t have left us.
Another way I used to play the game myself was by having sleepovers. The other girls were always up for sleepovers at our house, even though once they got there they didn’t seem to notice I was around. They watched videos that were supposed to be comedies, but seemed to me more like “How to be a Successful Teenager” training films, and ate popcorn and nachos and brownies, washing it all down with gallons of Coke. All they talked and giggled about were boys, especially my brother, who made it a habit to avoid these events whenever possible. I didn’t want to be like these girls, but it was fun to watch them; watch how they were forever adjusting themselves to be just like each other.
Why did we give up playing the game? It wasn’t because at sixteen Lexie suddenly thought he was too old to be hanging out with his fourteen-year-old sister. He has never acted that way toward me, even though he has always been one of the popular kids, and people tend to notice me about as much as bathroom tile. It was a specific event. Early last summer some new people moved into one side of a duplex over on May Street. This is about three blocks behind us, and we didn’t know the slightest thing about them except that every single weekday evening at exactly 9:40 they got in bed and went at it, and they never bothered to close the curtains. I guess they didn’t see the need–the house was surrounded by a high privacy fence and the bedroom windows were around back, partially blocked by a large bush. No one could see in unless they were on top of a two-story house three blocks away with binoculars.
We joked about setting our watches by them. Lexie made comments about how at least they had active imaginations, or sometimes things like, “I wonder if that’s an Olympic event?” Another oddity about them was that they never once did it on the weekend. Or if they did, it was strictly lights off and curtains drawn. She was pretty in that fresh breath mint television commercial sort of way, but he had this amazing amount of body hair, even covering his back. I suggested we should track the moon cycles and see if he seemed hairier than usual around the full moon.
Then one Tuesday night, when they were into some pretty old-fashioned looking stuff, in walked this skinny blonde man. Lexie asked, “Who’s he?” as they all sort of hung inanimate for a long moment. Finally the guy raised his arm, and I realized he was holding a gun just as he fired it quickly several times at each of them. I saw him move it to his mouth, but Lexie grabbed my binoculars away just as I thought I heard the last bang.
Lexie’s face looked strange, his blue eyes too bright in the dim moonlight, his nostrils flaring. He grabbed my face on either side and hissed, “You didn’t see that! Listen to me! You didn’t see anything, understood? Not one single thing!”
I tried to nod, but he was holding on too tight. I whispered, “‘Kay.”
“Grace, promise me!”
“Promise!” I squeaked out.
Sirens cut the sticky night air. He let go and grabbed our things. “Let’s get out of here!”
We dropped to the roof over the dining room, and climbed in his bedroom window. We knelt in the dark, watching as police cars screamed up to the house, followed by an ambulance. At that height we really couldn’t see what was going on very well. People were gathering outside and walking in clusters down the street to gawk. Finally Lexie turned toward me and said, “No more.”
I didn’t need to ask what he meant.
By the time the popular girls held their next sleepover in our living room on Friday, the story was all over the news. The gunman was actually the woman’s husband, who worked the night shift at the A&P. The other man worked with the woman during the day at a bank over in McHenry. When Mom read it in the paper, she shook her head, muttering, “That’s what I should’ve done.” I stopped clearing the table, wondering if I heard her right.
When people ask about Dad, we’re supposed to say he died. Car accident or something. He might as well have, since he rarely pays any of his child support and never tries to visit Lexie and me. The only reason we know he’s alive is that we still visit Grandma Eller on birthdays and Christmas Eve, and she has pictures of his new family sitting on her piano. We never ask about them, but Lexie has given names to them: Barbie for the woman, Bambi and Bimbette for the two girls she already had when they met, and Juan for their little boy. When we’re alone, we make up stories about them. We talk about the nice house they live in and all of the nice things they buy with our child support money.
Grandma Eller makes excuses for his not visiting: they live way out in California and it’s too far to drive, too expensive to fly. We don’t point out that he is a professor; he has three months off every summer and five weeks for winter interim. He used to travel all over the world during the time that he lived with us. A three day drive to Illinois would be nothing. It’s not like we want to see him anyway, after all this time. I tell people he died of salmonella he caught while working as a chicken geek in a carnival one summer. Grandma Cole–my real grandmother–thinks that’s hysterical. She hates him as much as Mom imagines she still loves him.
So the weekend after the murder/suicide, five girls spent the night in our livingroom. They each claimed to have seen the gunman at the A&P, and he was so cute, and adultery really still ought to be a prosecutable crime, and isn’t it a tragedy? I contemplated telling them about the hairy guy, then thought better of it. A blonde named Cindy snagged Lexie as he came in from being out with his friends and asked, “Don’t you just think this is a tragedy?”
He looked at her for a moment with a serious frown like he was trying to figure out what sort of creature she was, then squinted and said, “Life is a tragedy. If you wait long enough, all of the characters die.” Then he pulled his arm free and headed upstairs. I knew he was rolling his eyes, even though I couldn’t see his face.
The others spent most of the rest of the evening swooning over him. Andrea took my parents’ wedding photo off the top of the china hutch and pointed out to everyone that Lexie looked just like Dad, a fact that he hated nearly as much as he hated that his real name, Alexander, was also Dad’s. Then she went so far as to include me in the conversation, asking me, “Have you ever seen him without his clothes?”
I was so surprised at being spoken to that I blurted out, “Sure,” without thinking.
There was dead silence in the room for a moment, and then they all exclaimed at once, “No way!” or “Really?” or “Ohmygawd!”
Finally Cindy proclaimed, “You have not. Not actually naked.”
I shrugged, then nodded.
“You have not!” she repeated, then asked, “When’s the last time you saw him naked?”
Actually, about an hour before they arrived. We share a bathroom, and never think anything about walking in on each other bathing or grooming or anything. But I realized if I said this, the entire town would know it by Monday. I shrugged again. “A few weeks ago. I went into his room to talk to him and he’d just gotten out of the shower.”
“Oh my gawd! What did he look like? Did you see It?” Beth asked.
“Just for a second. I mean, I went back out until he got his pants on.”
“What did he say? What did he do?” Andrea demanded.
“Nothing. It wasn’t on purpose.”
Cindy squinted at me. “Liar. You’ve never seen one in your life.”
I quickly suggested, “Let’s make some more popcorn.”
“Not so much salt this time,” Beth ordered, handing the empty bowl to me.
“Liar,” Cindy repeated.
Here’s the thing about the sleepovers: the person they really made happy was Mom. She liked to pretend I was popular and that all those girls liked our house so much because she was cool. Which was maybe partly true, because she didn’t supervise us or fuss at us at all. And in the morning she always made a big breakfast like pancakes or bacon and eggs or waffles, and they ate like giggling pigs. Sometimes a few of them even remembered to say thank you.
That morning Cindy had enlightened us with the fact that you could gauge the size of a man’s thing by the size of his hands. They were all eagerly waiting Lexie’s appearance at the table, giggling even more than usual. I was feeling nervous myself. What if he forgot they were there? Lots of times in the summer he came down to breakfast wearing just his boxers. Mom and I were used to it, but suddenly I was feeling I didn’t want those girls in my house any more. I didn’t want them to know anything more about my family. I kept my hands clenched in my lap as Mom dished out french toast, hoping he would sleep in.
Then we heard him clumping down the stairs, and he entered—thank you, God—completely dressed, even wearing his shoes. He kissed Mom’s cheek before sitting down, then reached for the orange juice pitcher. Cindy was making wild gestures for everyone to look at his large, strong hands. He frowned a little. “Something wrong?”
“Inside joke,” I assured him quickly, and they all started giggling.
He frowned again, then shook his head and began to eat.
Once they were all gone, I helped Mom wash the dishes and vacuum up the popcorn mess. She was humming that song from Mary Poppins about “A spoonful of sugar…” as we worked and seemed in a real good mood, but I noticed how tired she looked around her eyes. I remembered how serious she sounded a few days before, saying, “That’s what I should have done.” I wanted to tell her that what she had done, surviving him and raising Lexie and me on her own, was so much braver. Instead I just gave her a hug and whispered, “Thanks, Mom.”
She chuckled a little in surprise and hugged me back. Then she went to the grocery store, while I headed upstairs for a nap. I turned on a Moby cd and pulled the shades, and was nearly asleep when Lexie barged in and sat on the bed. “What?” I groaned.
“Why do you bring those cows over here all the time?”
“I don’t. They just come.”
“Well, tell them they can’t come any more. They irritate the hell out of me. And they eat up a week’s worth of groceries. We can’t afford it.”
“You tell them. They’re not coming to see me.”
He scowled. “What?”
“This morning, at breakfast–they were giggling ’cause they were trying to guess how big your thing is by looking at your hands.”
I smiled a little. “You’re all they ever talk about. Don’t you think any of them are cute? What about Cindy?”
“No! Bunch of little twerps! Man!” But I saw him looking down at his hands curiously.
A few weeks later Cindy and Andrea dropped by while I was mowing the lawn. I could see “sleepover” written all over them. And I could hear Lexie demanding, “Tell them they can’t come any more.” I kept pushing the mower in long rows, wondering how many sleepovers they had at their houses that I was simply not invited to. I wondered if they would ever come around here at all if Lexie weren’t my brother; suspected probably not. Finally I pushed the machine into the garage, then came out to join them on the porch, wiping the sweat off my face with the back of my arm.
“Hey, Grace!” Cindy bubbled. “We’ve been making plans for Saturday!”
“Do you think your mom will let us sleep out back? It’s certainly hot enough. And she could make your brother chaperone if….”
“I’m afraid we can’t…. Mom says you can’t stay here any more.”
They both frowned darkly. Andrea demanded, “What are you talking about?”
I whipped up some tears, then softly pressed, “Please promise you won’t tell a soul!” (That would guarantee express gossip delivery.) They both swore on a stack of Bibles. “It’s about my dad. He’s not really dead, see?”
They looked at each other, and I could tell they already knew this, but I played innocent. “The thing is, he ran off with some cheap trash to California. Only turns out she’s expensive trash. And they spent all our family savings, and we don’t get any child support money. Plus he ran up all the credit on her and doesn’t pay it, so Mom’s gotta pay everything. We can barely buy groceries. Lexie says if I keep having people over all the time, we might lose the house.” I was crying pretty good by then, although this was a pretty big exaggeration. Not a lie though. Even though I was only seven years old at the time, it made a lasting impression on me: first his taking off like that, and then a few weeks later Mom getting all these huge credit card bills for things they were buying for their new life. She was too shocked to think of cutting off her joint credit; too much in denial. Fortunately Grandma Cole had her wits about her. She called all the credit companies herself to freeze the cards. Then she packed Lexie and me over to Grandma Eller’s house and told her, “Look what he’s doing to these innocent children.” And we stood there in the parlor while Grandma Eller wrote out checks to pay off every one of those bills.
Anyway, Cindy and Andrea both consoled me for a few minutes, then hurried off to spread the news. I sat out on the porch, suddenly unable to stop crying even though I knew I just made it up. After awhile Lexie came out and frowned down at me, then said, “Come inside.” He took me to my bedroom to lie down, then brought me a cold wet rag for my face. “What happened?”
“Do you ever think about Dad?”
He sat down. “Of course I do. That’s what you’re crying about?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know what I think most about Dad? I worry that I share the same genes as such a bottom feeding lowlife slug. That’s what I think.” He rubbed his hand on my leg soothingly. “If anybody ever treated you that way, I’d kill them.”
I smiled a little. “Thanks. But Grandma would probably beat you to it.”
We both laughed then, and I felt a little better.
Here is one good memory I have of my father. It was the Christmas before he left. He took me with him to find Mom the perfect gift. Every year he bought her something he thought was really useful, like an electric bread baker, and she got mad, so he told me he was going to trust my woman’s instincts. Since I was six, I thought that was pretty funny. But at the mall I wouldn’t let him even look in the Sears store. I took him right where he needed to go: the San Francisco Music Box Company. Every time Mom brought me to the mall for shoes or anything, we always stopped there. Even at six I understood these were expensive, extravagant gifts. But I thought she was worth it. He looked at several, winding them and holding them up to listen with a frown that looked so much like Lexie’s does now, then turning them over again to examine the price tags. I was afraid he was going to just get the cheapest one there, which would hurt her feelings as much as the foot massager she got for Mother’s Day. But finally he walked to the counter with two of them in his hands: a long shiny one of polished olive wood with flowers made of pieces of ivory and abalone shell inlaid on the lid, and a small, simple cedar box. He told the woman, “I want this box,” handing her the beautiful one, “but I want it to play this song,” handing her the other.
She nodded. “No problem. Come back in an hour.”
The music box cost $350–an unfathomable amount to me at six. About a tenth of what he charged for jewelry alone the week after he left. She still has it on her bureau though, like a treasured possession. The song, I realized recently when hearing it playing late one night, is Unchained Melody.
The following evening Lexie and I were in the kitchen making taco salad for dinner when Mom got home. She entered the room silently, a grimace of rage on her face, and slapped me like a thunderbolt. My eyes blurred in pain, and I stumbled back as she hissed, “How dare you say those things!” Then she spun and stormed out, stomping up the stairs.
I turned to the sink to splash cold water on my burning face, trying not to cry. Lexie came up behind me, putting his hands on my shoulders. “What’s she talking about? What happened?”
“I told them about Dad–those girls.”
“You mean the chicken geek story?”
I shook my head. “Worse. The truth. I told them the truth.”
“Oh Grace.” He shook his head, then put his arms around me.
That was the end of the sleepovers. In September I started high school, and learned to study lower life forms with a microscope instead.